Monday, November 23, 2015

Orbert Davis and the new faces of Cuba

As I entered Chicago's Auditorium Theatre on a blustery Friday evening, I believed that I was quite prepared for what I was about to see and hear. Orbert Davis and his Chicago Jazz Philharmonic was presenting an ambitious new project, "Scenes From Life: Cuba!" in collaboration with one of Havana's top music schools, the Universidad de las Artes (ISA). My expectations were shaped by the fact that I had been tracking the project for several months and had very recently interviewed Davis about it for a preview article published at Agúzate, the blog of a Chicago-based organization dedicated to Afro-Latin music and culture.

Here were my expectations: I would see, working together side by side, Cuban music students and their American professional counterparts. I would hear the CJP's unique form of orchestral, third stream jazz. I would hear some Cuban music. I would go home happy.

A few days earlier, 37 young music students and a school administrator had arrived in Chicago from Havana. It was, for all of them, their first trip beyond Cuba's borders. The project had its origins in two trips that Orbert Davis made to Cuba in 2012 and 2014. It was on the earlier trip that he first encountered the school and its talented students. The return two years later was for the express purpose of collaborating with the school for a performance at the Havana Jazz Festival. Davis brought a few key members of the CJP with him: Steve Eisen on winds, bassist Stewart Miller, Leandro Lopez Varady on piano and drummer Ernie Adams. To say that they are among Chicago's best jazz musicians sells them short. Rather, it's more accurate to say that they are world class musicians who happen to call Chicago home. Along with Davis's trumpet and direction, the five conducted workshops, master classes and rehearsals in the days leading to the Havana concert. The idea was that the students would "become" the CJP for a day, filling out the 40 or so chairs normally occupied by the orchestra's string, woodwind and horn players.

Smack dad in the middle of those rehearsals, something happened. You could call it coincidence. You could call it divine providence. Whatever it was, on December 17, 2014, Presidents Raúl Castro of Cuba and Barack Obama of the United States simultaneously went on TV to announce the beginnings of normalized relations between two governments that had quite literally been enemies for over 50 years.

Cue the celebration.

I use the word "government" very much on purpose, because the people of each country have had no shortage of interest and affection for each other over the years. It would appear that, finally, the politicians recognize this essential truth and are taking significant steps to catch up with their citizens.

Again, I knew all of that when I took my seat in the concert hall. And I still wasn't prepared for what came next.

It starts with a backdrop of colonial Havana suspended over the orchestra, superimposed with an image of the U.S. flag. It is a huge orchestra, made up of, I'm guessing, 80 or so musicians from Cuba and the U.S., and they are performing the Star Spangled Banner together. As we reflexively do in this country (and, I suppose, in countries everywhere), the audience stands for its national anthem. Some sing along, others put their hand on their heart like they were taught in grade school. Then, with barely a pause, the flag of Cuba appears alongside that of the U.S. and the orchestra plays La Bayamesa, the Cuban anthem. The audience is momentarily confused, having already started to sit down. Everyone, though, is quickly back on their feet, showing their respect for the students and the country they came from.

My eyes are slightly moist as I sit down, and Davis, like a proud father, takes the microphone to share his enthusiasm not only for the project, but also for the students themselves, whom he has clearly come to love. The formal program begins with a version of of Davis' composition Diaspora, which appeared on the CJP's debut album 10 years ago. In some ways, the African diaspora is at the heart of this project. The slave trade forcibly brought Africans to the United States, but far more were brought to Latin America. Orbert Davis and the Cuban students are descendants of these diverging journeys, just as jazz and rumba are its cultural flowerings. The 'proud father' reference is apt, because in a very real way, Davis and the young Cubans are having a family reunion. Trust me, when all of that comes together with the mighty sound of an 80 piece orchestra, the effect is truly profound.

The diaspora plays a part in the evening's second selection as well, Chicago @173, which Davis composed for his score to the documentary DuSable to Obama: Chicago's Black Metropolis. The first part of the title refers to the city's first resident, Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, a free black man, likely from Hispaniola, the island just to the east of Cuba that is now home to the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The first half of the concert concludes with five movements from Havana Blue, the project that first brought Davis to Cuba in 2012. It was written in collaboration with choreographer Frank Chaves and presented by the CJP and River North Dance Chicago in 2013. That concert was easily one of the best performances that I saw that year, but this time around, by subtracting the dancers and adding 50 or so musicians, it was, for me, a far more powerful musical experience.

After intermission, Davis came out to say that we could, basically, throw our programs away. Some time between the students' arrival on Monday and today, the first three songs were scrapped in favor of the CJP leaving the stage entirely to the young Cubans, dubbing the segment "Postcards From Cuba," with each song spotlighting a different Cuban rhythm. First, a string quintet absolutely killed on a rendition of Cumbanchero. Then, the rest of the students came out for a rhythmic Guaguanco, followed by the drop-dead gorgeous bolero Quiereme Mucho that brought one of the violinists out of her regular element for a beautifully sung lead vocal. Finally, a spirited Guantanamera in which several students took turns putting down their instruments so they could dance to the guajira-son.

I should, I suppose, say something about the musical talent of the students, because it was, from time to time, jaw-droppingly good. Violin players, reedists, trumpeters and percussionists all took turns soloing. For me, the violinists were especially noteworthy. You just don't hear that much swinging violin outside of a Regina Carter concert (although in Chicago we are blessed with James Sanders and his Latin jazz ensemble Conjunto), but one after another, these kids stood up and swung with total assurance. It no doubt helps that Cuba has such a strong charanga tradition, but still... Oh, and the three Cuban percussionists... The CJP has a certified maestro conguero in Joe Rendón, but he spent a fair amount of the evening proudly watching his young charges do most of the heavy lifting.

The entire CJP+ISA Orchestra came together for another powerful take of an older CJP tune before the night's premiere, Scenes From Life, a work composed especially for this collaboration. This new work perfectly captured the essence of everything the collaboration stood for: Davis' third stream jazz/classical aesthetic matched to Cuban soul and sensibility. It occurred to me quite suddenly that I was hearing something unprecedented: An 80 piece orchestra roaring with the power and finesse of  Machito's big band in a piece every bit as ambitious as Tanga, Mario Bauzá's famous Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite.

Nope, I wasn't prepared for that, either.

All photos by Darron Jones
The evening ended with the joyous jam session Orlando's Walk, also written by Davis for Havana Blue. I think pretty much everyone took a solo on this one. OK, I exaggerate a bit, but there were a lot. This included Davis, whose trumpet spent much of the evening on its stand, but he had the time of his life trading choruses with two young Cubans for several minutes.

All good things must end. A long standing ovation and countless on stage hugs finally gave way to the audience filing out of the hall with a marked bounce in their step. But I still had one more unexpected experience in store. Two of the students had family in Chicago that they had never met. Such was the crime that was the 50 year separation between often hostile governments. Witnessing this actual family reunion gave me hope for a world that, on this particular Friday night, was just learning the horrific news of the terror in Paris.

Chicago has benefited from the tours of several Cuban greats in the past couple of years. Together, the legends that are Orquesta Aragón, Buena Vista Social Club, Los Van Van and Chucho Valdés represent generations of Cuban music dating from both pre- and post-revolutionary eras. With Scenes From Life, we now have a look at the faces of a brand new era.

Bring it on.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Alebrijes in Oaxaca

This article was originally written for El BeiSMan. I've made a few tweaks to it here and added a few pictures that there wasn't room for in the original article. Much of what I write about at Border Radio centers on cultural exchange, and there is little doubt in my mind that meeting Jacobo Ángeles and viewing his wonderful art here in Chicago was a factor in my deciding to travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, where his workshop is located. The idea of exchange is central to this article as well. Not only did I visit the source of something beautiful and brimming with significance, but likewise that art travels the world, bringing a healthy dose of culture and knowledge with it.

Encountering Alebrijes: Beyond the Beauty
by Don Macica with Carolina Cifuentes
photos by Don Macica

We first met Jacobo Ángeles in Chicago a few years ago at the National Museum of Mexican Art during their annual Folk Art Festival (this year’s fest begins on Friday, October 16). The festival brings together folk artists from several Mexican states to educate visitors about their work and, hopefully, sell some of it. There are sugar skulls, rugs, textiles, ceramics, paper crafts and, directly as you enter the room, Jacobo Ángeles and his alebrijes. When we saw him last October, we told him we were coming to Oaxaca at Christmas and he invited us to visit his workshop.

As you explore the streets of Oaxaca City’s central historic district, you’ll find several shops selling folk art that is mostly local to the southern Mexican state. There is, in fact, an entire mercado devoted to the work of artisans. Generally speaking, the articles for sale would all make a good remembrance of your visit when you view them later back at home, and they are priced so that you don’t have to break the bank to awaken those memories.

Jacobo Ángeles
When you enter Voces de Copal on Calle Macedonio Alcalá, however, you quickly sense that something is different. Immediately to your right is a narrow and brightly lit room outfitted with a polished wooden frame that evokes a tunnel or the hull of a boat. Attached at varying heights on this frame are no more than 12 or 13 shelves, and on each of these is placed a single exquisite example of the painted wood carvings known as alebrijes. This is the gallery of Jacobo Ángeles, a master artisan whose pieces can be found in museums, galleries and private collections around the world.

I have a 10 inch long alebrije of a lizard on my living room wall, but I must confess that it is not one of Jacobo’s. I bought it at a museum shop in Oaxaca.  At a glance, they are similar in appearance, colorful animal figures carved out of the wood of the copal tree and painted in vibrant patterns. Upon closer inspection, though, the detail, quality and symbolic meaning of Jacobo’s work elevate it beyond the artisan and into the realm of art object.

If you take a bus or taxi about 15 miles south of Oaxaca City on Highway 175 you’ll find the village of San Martín Tilcajete. There are several towns surrounding Oaxaca City, and each is celebrated for a particular artisan form. San Martín Tilcajete is the place of the alebrijes. We were fortunate enough to hitch a ride in the truck of a staff member at Voces de Copal. Turning off the highway, we proceeded west about a mile until we reached the village, eventually reaching the very western edge of town where Taller Jacobo y Maria Ángeles can be found.

When I think of a workshop, I picture a sparse room and a few artisans hunched over a workbench, diligently applying their skills to the task as apprentices lend a hand. Imagine my surprise, then, when after several minutes of right and left turns through the streets of the village, we arrived at the ever expanding complex that is both the home and taller of Jacobo and Maria. Entering through a gate, we came upon a lush, plant filled courtyard. All of the work areas, while covered by a roof, were open and airy, owing to the warm and dry Oaxacan climate. Each was filled with several young apprentices, all practicing the craft that has flourished here for generations. 

After greeting us warmly, Jacobo introduced us to Eduardo, who would be our guide to the taller. The story originates, of course, in the surrounding rural area, where the copal is harvested.  (It’s important to note that Jacobo’s taller does not merely take the wood of the copal. For the last five years, they have been reforesting as well.  Two thousand trees were planted just this past year.) The wood then goes through a drying process before carving begins. Working with basic tools like machetes, chisels and knives, woodworkers allow the tree branch to “speak” to them, in essence inspiring the form of the carving. There are stages of carving: rough outline, detail work, polishing. A single piece, depending on its size, can take a month or so to fashion. 

Most of the carving takes place in one work area, while others are devoted to the painting. Once it leaves the carver’s hands, further artistic decisions are made by the painters. Commercial paints are used, but so, too, are natural pigments of the type created by Jocobo’s Zapotec ancestors centuries ago. The entire process is collaborative in the sense that no one piece represents an individual artisan, but a process by which a completed work is dependent on many hands.

We stopped to talk with a young artisan who was diligently painting an intricate pattern on a fantastical animal figure. She explained that at first, painters are only allowed to do dots, and only with time do they progress to more complex patterns. She herself was in her third year of training, and her detailing was intricate and beautiful.

The patterns are not merely decoration, nor are the figures being carved random choices. While it is commonly accepted that alebrijes as the world knows them originated in Mexico City a mere 80 years ago, Jacobo makes it very clear that the Oaxacan practice has roots that are pre-Hispanic. In fact, alebrijes are referred to here as either tonas, representing the animals of the Zapotec calendar, or nahuales, where they become one with the human, sometime referred to as a spirit animal. Collectively, they are "obras espirituales", spiritual works.

We began to realize that two things were taking place. First, the taller is the studio of master artisan Jacobo Ángeles and his wife Maria, who craft alebrijes so exceptional that they are collected and displayed around the globe. Second, and equally important, is the teaching of an art form to the young people of San Martín Tilcajete, and in the process doing two things:  instilling knowledge and pride of their Zapotec heritage and passing on a skill that will allow them to make a very honorable living. 

The state of Oaxaca, though extraordinarily rich in culture, lacks employment opportunities. It is quite likely, then, that the creation and sale of alebrijes is San Martín Tilcajete’s major source of income. Thus, the artist’s studio doubles as a job training center, where the ancient Oaxacan sense of shared communal duty is visibly apparent.  That point is further driven home when we are told that all of the employees of Voces de Copal and Azucena Zapoteca, a restaurant across Alcalá from the gallery in Oaxaca City that sells Jacobo’s alebrijes and other crafts, live in San Martín, and are thus also supported by the taller.

After our tour, Jacobo sat with us for a half an hour to discuss his art and the work of the taller. "My Zapotec ancestors used a 20-day calendar. Each day was represented by a different creature. Every person had an animal with which he had a connection, and each animal had certain characteristics that carried over to the individual as personality traits. For example, the jaguar represents power and ultimate strength, the frog signifies honesty and openness, the coyote connotes watchful observation, the turtle always a troublemaker breaking rules, and the eagle embodies technical and strategic power.“

Jacobo began carving with his father at age 12. He was later mentored by village elders, including Isidoro Cruz, an innovator of the modern carving tradition. "Over the past few decades our craft has changed significantly," Jacobo explains, "with use of store-bought paints, an increase in the range of figures carved and collector demand; but my ancestors were carving before the Spanish Conquest, painting with natural dyes derived from fruits and vegetables, plants and tree bark, soils and even insects."

The taller now accepts commissions from buyers, and with that the subjects carved has grown beyond the Zapotec calendar to include other animals and, in some cases, even non-animate forms. The patterns painted on them, though, continue to be imbued with Zapotec symbolism, thus contributing to an ongoing education for those who want to look beyond the pretty colors and into the heart of the culture from which they came.

“We've transformed simple yet important traditions into something different, yet highly symbolic.” Explains Jacobo, “In our workshop, painting depicts designs and representations of our ethnic mores - friezes from the ancient ruin at Mitla, symbols representing waves, mountains and fertility, our totems and other metaphors of our culture."

With that, Jacobo excuses himself. A collector is waiting, another commission is being planned. We end our visit at Milagros de Sabina, a small shop that sells crafts created at the taller. There are alebrijes, to be sure, but also jewelry and other decorative items derived from the same Zapotec cultural symbols. You don’t need the deep pockets of an international art collector to shop there, just a sincere appreciation of beauty and culture and a desire to contribute to the success of the taller. When Jacobo arrives at the National Museum of Mexican Art later this month, he’ll not only bring several of his personal works, but also dozens of these less expensive creations by the artisans of Taller Jacobo y Maria Ángeles.

Our day is not quite over. We get a ride back to the highway where we'll take a bus back to Oaxaca City. First, though, we have lunch at the San Martín Tilcajete location of Azucena Zapoteca, a sprawling restaurant and gallery alongside the road that must employ at least 100 people. After a complimentary mezcal, we enjoy one of the best meals of our entire Oaxaca trip. Yes, the food was delicious, but in a culinary capital like Oaxaca, that hardly needs to be said. As we savored this particular meal, our lives were newly enriched by what we had just learned, and knowing that we were playing a small part in the sustainability of Zapotec traditions enhanced this meal into the realm of cultural preservation. For that we’ll always be grateful.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

This Mexican walks into a bar in Brooklyn...

There’s a tendency to view Brooklyn through the lens of hipsterdom. You know, white millennial creative types who populate formerly gritty neighborhoods, driving up real estate prices and driving out long-time residents, gradually transforming a formerly diverse ethnic neighborhood into a homogenous land of pour over specialty coffee, black frame glasses and mountain man beards.

There’s a glimmer of truth in all that. Neighborhoods do change as young people move to them. Sadly, this often causes rents to go up as long-time residents leave for someplace more affordable. What is also true, but not usually accounted for in these stories, is that these creative types are also surprisingly diverse. In some ways, Brooklyn is as it ever was: A destination for immigrants. Two of my favorite ‘world music’ bands, Chicha Libre and Red Baraat, call Brooklyn home. Dev Hynes, an Afro-Brit who records as Blood Orange, makes edgy yet strangely elegant 21st century R&B. The Dutty Arts DJ collective mashes up all sorts of Latin American sounds to keep dancefloors hopping. The empress of carioca funk, Zuzuka Poderosa, also calls Brooklyn home, and even René Pérez of the Puerto Rican duo Calle 13 is rumored to have a place there. The close proximity of these musicians to one another all but insures that music coming out of Brooklyn often draws from unlikely sources.

And the, there’s Rana Santacruz, a creative if there ever was one. He was born in Mexico City and led an alternative rock band there called La Catrina. That band had an affinity for genre-jumping, sometimes in the course of a single song. Moving to Brooklyn in 2002 only accelerated Santacruz’s eclectic tendencies. He released a well-received recording in 2010 called Chicavasco and has just come out with a second, Por Ahi

What Rana Santacruz has most in common with many other Brooklyn artists is a drive to make music on his own terms. Colors and styles that engage him work their way into his canvas, but his music isn’t calculated to cross over in the direction of the mainstream. Instead, it asks politely that you travel a bit to get to where he’s at. If you do, there’s much to reward you.

I’m going to refrain from a track-by-track analysis, but depending on where you drop the metaphorical needle, you are going to hear bits of several musical styles going on at once. French chanson, bluegrass breakdowns, Celtic sea chanties, East European polkas and more are interwoven with Mexican and other Latin American forms like son jarocho, mariachi, cumbia and tango. This all might play out as an amusing diversion if not for the fact that Santacruz is a first rate songwriter of the storyteller variety, vividly creating characters with their various passions, desires and obsessions. In an Anglo context, both Randy Newman and Tom Waits are masters of this form. Santacruz aspires to be among them, and judging from the songs on Por Ahi, he’s got the chops to pull it off.

All of these stories are in Spanish, but if you’re an English dominant whose grasp of other languages is shaky (yes, my hand is raised here) you can follow along with a translated lyric booklet. To be sure, Santacruz has not abandoned Mexico. Rather, he’s expanded its cultural reach and found a new context in which an old Mexican form—the corrido—can flourish. The music is resolutely acoustic, but does not lack for energy. Banjo and fiddle figure prominently, as do mariachi horns. Santacruz leads on accordion, and though he’s no Flaco Jimenez, the instrument provides just the right amount of color to enliven the arrangements and lend credibility to other genres like tango, Irish reels and Gypsy jazz.

As long as Brooklyn keeps producing music like this, I’ll keep listening.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Music without walls

Miles of Aisles
Back in my record retail days, I used to joke with my colleagues that if we owned the store, it would be one big A-Z section. The impetus was often something like a new Prince CD, or (then) Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor Daniel Barenboim recording an album of tangos. An inventory tag was always attached that we were sworn to obey. Prince could rock out, but the directions said file under R&B. Plenty of music borrowed from multiple sources: funked up jazz, poppy disco, Celtic rock. Still, the categories served a function, guiding curious explorers to the section where they were likely to find a concentration of the artists and titles they might like. There's a problem with this, though. In a relational sphere, James Brown and Fela Kuti were spiritually much closer together than, say, James Brown and Michael Jackson. But they weren't in the same section, so how would you know?

Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events just created their all encompassing A-Z section. They took a handful of formerly separated free music series at Millennium Park and combined them. One of them, called Music Without Borders, was retired a few years ago. Its focus was that curious category called 'world music', which pretty much meant anything originating from somewhere other than the United States. I loved it. It was for me. Implicit in that, though, was a thorny problem: Is the United States not part of the world? What, then, of James Brown and Fela Kuti?

I loved Music Without Borders so much that, for the life of me, I can't remember what was on the stage during the other nights of the week during it's 8 week summer existence. I do know that, if I have my chronology right, two distinct series emerged in its wake, the mostly rock Downtown Sound and the mostly experimental new music Loops and Variations. Downtown Sound occasionally presented world music artists, and when they did I took the train downtown to attend some pretty memorable concerts. But I was inconsistent, and I never went to Loops and Variations. It was not, um, my thing. Sometimes we think we know what something is about before we even check it out. Sometimes, we're wrong.

Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park
It, perhaps, wasn't a lot of people's thing. For 2015, the label has been retired. Instead, the city has greatly expanded Downtown Sound and essentially put these three seemingly divergent categorizations on equal footing. In the process, they seem to have made a conscious decision to breach a few walls and, if the saints are willing, this move will expose a lot of Chicagoans to music that isn't their thing.

All of it, at cursory listen, sounds engaging and fun. I know this because the internet is a wonderful thing and an enterprising person named Bryan Kevton built what appears to be an unofficial website guide to the whole series, which very helpfully lists all dates and artists in chronological order that is easy to read on your phone and includes one Soundcloud track for each artist.

Go through it. Date by date. Artist by artist. Listen by listen. All 31 of them. You'll probably find a thing or two that you don't particularly like, a few things that you love, and a fair number that lie somewhere on a continuum between the two and that you'll hopefully be curious about.

David Wax Museum
It's already happened to me. On July 23, the ultra traditional Mexican son jarocho group Los Cojolites are headlining over the Boston based indie rock band David Wax Museum, who borrow heavily from Mexican music. My old employer would have filed them on opposite ends of the store, but as a double bill it's a brilliant conception. Los Cojolites grabbed my attention first, but now my universe has suddenly expanded as I learn more about David Wax Museum.

Third Coast Percussion
The summer is full of nights like that. Poi Dog Pondering, a favorite of my young(ish) adulthood that transformed itself from a multi-ethnic folk group to a multi-ethnic dance party upon migrating to Chicago in the early 1990s, is preceded by a woman from Minneapolis named Caroline Smith that has a rootsy folk-jazz sound that is absolutely beguiling. The eclectic yet highly listenable Snarky Puppy, whose world jazz (uh-oh, another hybrid category - where the hell am I going to file them?) reminds me a bit of everything from highly polished L.A. studio fusion to NOLA groove to Afropop, will be preceded by the avant-classical ensemble Third Coast Percussion interpreting composer Terry Riley's seminal minimalist work In C. (Easy, file in the most obscure corner of the classical department.)

Or how about this one? The kick ass retro R&B of Sonny Knight and the Lakers opening for Antibalas, who carry on the AfroBeat tradition in both the musical and revolutionary sense. Yep, it's that James Brown-Fela thing again.

It's like this, over and over. San Fermin creates multi-layered and slightly unsettling chamber pop that is nonetheless pretty damn catchy and is paired on this gig with a barely melodic percussion quartet. The Very Best samples and cross-purposes various sounds in an African context that brings to mind So-era Peter Gabriel, yet to get to them you will be treated to the electro-disco wonderland of Glass Lux. Not so sure about that last one, but I'm going. The London Souls are loud hard rock (my inner AC/DC can't wait to hear an electric guitar crunch coming from that hallowed stage) but I'll be sure to get there early for the quirky Czech (my people!) pop of Eggnoise. Matthew Sweet's Time Capsule collection is a CD I would want with me if stranded on that proverbial desert island, but the DIY pop of Sweet's opener In Tall Buildings has its charms as well. There's even a reggae night featuring the legendary Mighty Diamonds. Pass the kouchie from the left hand side, just watch out for security.

And I haven't even mentioned the single (for me) most anticipated show of the year, the long awaited Chicago debut of Colombian / British collective Ondatropica. But even here, the opener is another 'world music' artist that so far hasn't excited me much, Helado Negro. People far smarter than me like him quite a bit though, and now I get to hear him live and maybe reevaluate my previous stance.

There was one thing about the old Music Without Borders that made it special, and that was the city's sincere efforts to make sure that the ethnicities and nations represented on stage were represented in the audience as well through tireless outreach. There is something about Downtown Sounds that has the air of being for the cool kids. And that is cool, no doubt about it. Cool kids have pretty good taste. But I also hope to see, for example, when King Sunny Ade strolls on stage, a large contingent of African expats in the audience, thirsty for a taste of home. That's where the joy begins.

Chicago music fans will have the opportunity to tear down a few walls this summer. We'll see if they do.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Goin' "globo"

One of the pleasures of living in Chicago is that it is also home to jazz trumpeter Orbert Davis. I'm not sure when we met, but if you are paying close attention to music in Chicago, he's a hard guy to avoid. He is, of course, a musician of amazing dexterity and taste, but he's also an ambitious conceptualist and visionary, unafraid to pursue daunting projects, not the least of which was the founding of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic in 2004.

Meanwhile, Chicago is likewise the home (and by home I mean I'm pretty sure that's where he sleeps at night) of Howard Levy. A virtuoso harmonica player, he's also a terrific pianist. I know him mostly as music director of Chévere de Chicago, a Latin jazz supergroup if there ever was one, but the rest of the world might know him better as a founding member of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones.

A year doesn't go by when I don't encounter one of these guys in performance. Chévere killed at the Chicago Jazz Festival last year, and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic's 2013 collaboration with River North Dance Chicago, Havana Blue, was simply one of the best concerts I experienced that year.

It's about time these two got together.

One of Levy's ongoing projects is the world music ensemble Trio Globo. He's not the 'leader' per se, but an equal partner with drummer/percussionist Glen Velez and cellist Eugene Friesen. Over the course of three albums, they've explored a a rich mix of Eastern European folkloric music, American bluegrass, Latin rhythms and, of course, jazz. This weekend, Trio Globo will be the guests of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble for a pair of performances.

Writing for strings in an improvisational context means that you need to capture the swing of jazz, even when the musicians are playing notes on paper. Fortunately, Orbert Davis has already shown some pretty heavy chops in this area through the many ambitious projects tackled by the CJP. And despite the presence of piano and harmonica, Trio Globo's acoustic sound often brings to mind a rural front porch jam session. The fiddles just seem to be there, even if they are not.

If Trio Globo has attempted this sort of thing before, I'm unaware of it. Davis, meanwhile, seems to have no end to his curiosity at trying new challenges. New projects are, of course, fraught with risk. Lucky for us that there seems to be something in the water here in Chicago from which artists can drink, get a little tipsy, and think "Why the heck not?"

Friday, March 20, 2015

Only in Chicago

Only in Chicago. As a declaration, I realize that's likely not true. I know there are other cities around the globe where immigrants and the descendents of immigrants make up the bulk of the population. And while it is often said that Chicago is the most segregated city in the United States, I find that in the circles in which I move, that is not quite the case.

One of those weekends is coming up that remind me that I indeed live in a startlingly diverse city, even if the communities in which any given population resides tend to lean one way or the other. In a way, that's good. My life is enriched by the fact that I can spend time in neighborhoods that are heavily Mexican, African-American, Indian, Puerto Rican or Polish, knowing that they will be filled with businesses that cater to local residents and bring delight to me. Or, I can go to Albany Park, where the Middle Eastern, Central American and Korean storefronts are lined up one after another.

Ethnic enclaves are a treasure. It is only when economics and politics force people into one setting and discourage movement to another that it becomes problematic. That sort of thing brews distrust and fear and has a way of insuring that undeserved communities remain that way. But I digress. Sometimes I sit down to write one thing, and another emerges. I'll get back on point now.

I'll be running around a lot this weekend in a way that makes me glad I live in Chicago.

Tonight, a band I first heard at a street festival in my neighborhood less than two years ago celebrates the release of their first single and full length CD with a show at Martyrs' in the North Center neighborhood. Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orchestra started out as a electric cumbia band, modelling their sound and attitude around chicha, a variant of the Colombian music once it reached Peru in the 1970s and adapted by an indigenous urbanized population. That sound is still at the heart of the band, but it has taken a trip around the rest of Latin America as well, not surprising when you consider that its members hail from Texas (yes, I'm calling Texas Latin America - more on that later), Mexico, Panama and Puerto Rico. Each of them is something of a folkloric specialist in their respective traditions, but together they are a hard charging rock band with a fat, danceable groove. In something of an odd twist, they have invited a popular mambo orchestra to open for them. If I have the story right, the uncle of Dos Santos' Puerto Rican conga player is a trombone player in the mambo group. All in the family. It will be a long night. I'll wear comfortable shoes.

Tomorrow night, though, is when I'll really get a workout.

First I'll be running out to the Hermosa neighborhood where the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center (I've written about SRBCC before - you can check that here.) is presenting a big band tribute to perhaps the greatest of all Puerto Rican songwriters, Rafael Hernández, who passed away in 1965.  Humboldt Park born Puerto Rican bandleader Edwin Sánchez has put together a 14 piece orchestra of crack Chicago musicians to handle these classic songs. That's only half of it. The center is bringing in the son of Rafael Hernández, Alejandro "Chali" Hernández, to sing his father's songs. In the process, two, perhaps even three generations of Puerto Ricans, island and mainland born, will come together for one historic event. Tradition and cultural identity handed down, from generation to generation.

That, however, is not the last historic musical event of the night, nor is it the only one with strong cultural significance. I'll end my night in Lincoln Square at the Old Town School of Folk Music where two of Chicago's prominent ethnic communities, the Irish and the Mexicans, come together for something of a musical history lesson. The Mexican folkloric group Sones de México and the Irish Music School of Chicago will tell the story of the St. Patrick's Battalion (Los San Patricios). The battalion was a group of largely Irish immigrants who, stung by discrimination, found themselves sympathizing and then siding with Mexico during what we call the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. Mexicans view it differently and call it the unjust invasion of Mexico by North America. It was a land grab, plain and simple, and Mexico lost. As a result, most of California, all of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and much of Texas became the United States, and Mexico became much smaller.

There I go digressing again.

Anyway, the St. Patrick's Battalion fought bravely but lost, and many of them were hanged as deserters.  The concert, then, will combine Mexican son and Irish jigs to tell their story. There will be songs both lively and lamenting. There will be dancing from both a Mexican dance company and Irish dancers. It's all not as incongruent as it sounds. Both traditions utilize 6/8 time, fiddles, harps, accordions and toe tapping. Both are handed down generation to generation, lest they be lost. And both are, at heart, ballad forms that tell stories. This will be quite a story. Chances are if you grew up in the U.S. you know nothing about this, but in Mexico Los San Patricios are heroes.

I'm not saying Chicago is the only place this can happen. But we uniquely situated in the middle of the country, and wave after wave of immigrants (including my grandparents) have been arriving and building lives here since before the city was incorporated.

¡Todos somos inmigrantes!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A time, a scene, an identity

Sometimes, things converge on me in a small frame of time that make light bulbs switch on, illuminating the continuity of culture through time. In this case, it was a combination of becoming aware of an emerging scene in Cali, Colombia and my finally getting around to downloading a collection of songs from 1960s New York. Let me explain.

I had something in my 'save for later' bin for years. It's a collection called Nu Yorica Roots: The Rise of Latin Music in New York City in the 1960s. It just sort of sat there tempting me, but never quite enough, as I already had a handful of the songs elsewhere in my library.  Money's always tight, right? I finally broke down about a month ago, and boy am I glad I did.

Taken together, the songs form an amazing document of a critical time in the history of Latin music. It was a scene caught between the fading popularity of the mambo and the coalescence of a thing that would come to be called salsa. Young New York born musicians who would later become salsa and Latin jazz legends, like Eddie Palmieri and Ray Baretto, were overlapping with those who arrived from the islands: Arsenio Rodriguez, Machito, Mongo Santamaria, Tito Rodriguez and others. The hip sound of the time was Latin Boogaloo, so the younger generation, kids who had grown up in the barrio absorbing the music of white rockers and black R&B bands along with the stuff their elders played, were finding their way through all of it.

The collection almost sounds schizophrenic at first. There are very rock-like distorted electric guitars on Eddie Palmieri's My Spiritual Indian and soulful English vocals and funky vamping on Ray Baretto's Together, where his plea for racial harmony is embodied in his very identity: "I know a beautiful truth.. I'm black and I'm white and I'm red.. the blood of mankind flows in me." There are oddities like future Fania All-Stars leader and arranger Larry Harlow's Horsin' Up, which is practically a note for note Latinized version of Archie Bell & the Drells Tighten Up, apparently meant to cash in a dance craze called The Horse. The hits are there too: Joe Cuba's El Pito and Tito Puente's Oye Como Va, plus some invigorating Latin jazz from Sabu Martinez and a Beatles cover by Harvey Averne, another future Fania arranger/producer.

By 1972 it was being codified and labeled into salsa, initially just a marketing umbrella but soon a cultural touchstone and phenomenon. In the 60s, though, it was people with Caribbean roots trying to find their voice in a new, urbanized environment and in the process creating a scene.

A few days after I downloaded Nu Yorica, I read an item on about a another scene in Cali, Colombia called Salsa Choke. Odd, I thought, until I realized I was reading it in English, and that it's pronounced cho-kay. It's grown out of a style of line dancing known as choque, and if you watched the World Cup last summer, you saw it being danced by the Colombian national team after they scored a goal. Forty-plus years after they started calling Afro-Latin popular music salsa, the term is being revived by the youth of Cali to describe their new style of dance music (right now it mostly seems to be a DJ and singer kind of thing) that pulls from various Afro-Pacific traditions plus a fair amount of dancehall, reggaeton, cumbia and salsa, all of it filtered through a internationalist hip-hop lens. Accompanying the article was a download link for a free compilation, Latino Resiste Presents Salsa Choke. As I write this the link is still live, so you might want to jump on it.

I cannot get this compilation out of my iPod heavy rotation. It's that addictive. As far as I can tell, the percussion is live, but most of the instruments sound sampled from other sources. But, oh, what sources they are! One of my favorite tracks, Wiki Wiki, samples heavily from Missy Elliot's Get Ur Freak On, which if I'm not mistaken benefited itself from Timbaland's inventive sampling of Middle Eastern sounds. Imagine the guitar line from Dr. Dre's Next Episode, but with the straightforward snap of the snare drum replaced with the sinuous push-pull of güiro, cowbell and conga and accompanied by rapid-fire Jamaican-style toasting, and you start to get the idea. Such is the way the musical world turns in the 21st Century.

Every track is suffused with the humidity of a packed Cali dance floor, and in the process of this all night party, the youth of Cali are staking out their own scene and identity that has ties to the past and the rest of the world but one that is, for now, theirs alone. These kids are very respectful of their musical heritage, but aren't afraid to mix it up and make it their own.

Latino New York City of the 1960s and the Cali of today couldn't be more different, yet the music emerging from both is inexorably tied together. Both draw from the African Diaspora, not only Caribbean sources but African-American as well.

The two compilations sound great back to back. Next I'm going to try them on shuffle.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Reclaiming MLK

If you've read this blog before, you know that I do some freelance writing for the Chicago Sinfonietta. Every year for at least the last decade and regularly before that, the orchestra has programmed their January concert as a celebration of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It's not a random choice, nor is it merely a commercial calculation. Rather, the impetus for the concert springs from the organization's very DNA, as its founder, conductor Paul Freeman, was a black man and an acquaintance of Dr. King, in whose legacy lies the inspiration behind the orchestra's formation and its continuing advocacy of classical music opportunities for young musicians and composers who are not white.

I've attended a lot of these, and inspirational as they can be, they do tend to follow something of a blueprint. There were even a couple that had the whiff of complacency about them, self-congratulatory affairs that seemed to trot out Dr. King's memory as a plot device, awash in the glow of elevated humanity. Look how far we've come!

The Chicago Sinfonietta did something different last night, something that these grim times demanded, something that acknowledged that things are still pretty messed up in 21st Century America.

Classical music seasons are planned over a year in advance, and if you look at the current Sinfonietta season brochure, printed last spring, you will see Young Chicago Authors mentioned as narrators of Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait. You will see Sujari Britt, a remarkably poised and insanely talented cellist who happens to be a 13 year old black girl.  You will note the name of 15 year old Jherrard Hardeman, a composer whose Symphony No. 3 (!) was being presented for the first time by a professional orchestra. You'll read that an actor will recite some lines from Dr. King's I Have a Dream speech and that a high school choir would sing. Finally, you'll see the treacly copy, "This annual crowd-pleaser celebrates the future with the boundless optimism of today's youth."  Ouch.

Then 2014 happened, the deaths of two black men (one a boy, really) at the hands of the authorities and the further indignity of those same authorities getting off scott free, cleared of guilt without even the benefit of a trial. And then the protests and, yes, riots. And then the Fox News led backlash, the blaming of the victims.

Somewhere in the administrative offices of the Chicago Sinfonietta, it occurred to somebody that optimism was at a premium and that a "crowd-pleaser", blind to the turmoil, might not entirely be the right way to go. A celebratory MLK remembrance in times when there is very little to celebrate was not what was needed.

So, yes, all the feel good stuff was still there, but the context was changed dramatically by letting the Young Chicago Authors write and read their own stories reflecting on MLK and what it's like to be young and black in America.

"I had a nightmare that the past was present
Rope became gun
Whip became chokehold
Gasping for air in the bowels of European ships
Became completely breathless
Emmit Till became Michael, I mean Trayvon, I mean Jordan, I mean Eric
I mean more names that I can say
I mean more corpses than I can count"

Those are the words of Moriah Dowd, one of four young poets who contributed to I Have a Dream (Remix). It doesn't stop there. Poet after poet stepped to the mic, expressing anguish and frustration, but also anger and determination. And, in the midst of it all, some fleeting sense of hope, tempered by harsh reality. Another piece, What Would MLK Say?, lays bare the way the powerful absolve themselves of responsibility and deny their complicity; "They use his name as their saving grace, their golden umbrella, As if they are guilt free. They try to make me the guilty one... as if it's our fault we are dying."

The rest of the tribute concert was predictably inspiring, perhaps all the more so in the context of Young Chicago Authors' reality check. Sujari Britt was brilliant. Jherrard Hardeman, who guest conducted his own piece, was poised and confident, his composition marrying the elegiac quality of Barber's Adagio to the rhythmic minimalist pulse of John Adams. Actor Wayne K. Woods portrayal of Dr. King was note perfect, even as he highlighted the not-so-hidden militancy of parts of the speech we don't often hear. Lincoln Portrait was inspirational as the Young Chicago Authors read the 150 year old words of the 16th president. The Waubonsie Valley High School Mosaic Choir was a marvelous thing to behold, singing freedom songs of Nelson Mandela alongside contemporary gospel, the shining of their young faces matching the power of their voices.

The concert closed in its traditional fashion with everyone, audience included, joining hands to sing the Civil Rights era anthem We Shall Overcome. I'll admit right here that this has never been my favorite part of the concert. I viewed it as a nostalgic remnant of an earlier time, a play to older members of the audience who lived it. That all changed last night. The "Civil Rights Era" is hardly over. Hell, it's hardly begun, and if we don't overcome someday, well, we are all screwed for sure.

I wrote the program notes for this concert back in December, when the turmoil of Ferguson and Staten Island were still headline news, and I hoped at that time I would accurately predict the spirit of the concert. I've had a few people tell me the notes were spot on, so if you'd like to read them drop me a line and I'll send them to you. Young Chicago Authors also made the complete text of last night's poems available to the audience. Words on paper are different than voices crying out, but they are well worth reading on their own, so if you contact the Sinfonietta or YCA I'm reasonably sure they could send them to you.